27 June 2008

Designing Nature's Way

What would it mean to design products and processes the way Nature does? This is a question posed by the industrial ecology movement. According to their website:

Industrial ecology provides a powerful prism through which to examine the impact of industry and technology and associated changes in society and the economy on the biophysical environment. It examines local, regional and global uses and flows of materials and energy in products, processes, industrial sectors and economies and focuses on the potential role of industry in reducing environmental burdens throughout the product life cycle.

Jonathan Porritt argues the importance of encouraging businesses to ‘match the metabolism of the natural world’. By taking ecology into account when they create production systems designers can gear them to nature’s metabolism. An example might be making sure that all the unwanted by-products from production can decompose in a way that aids soil fertility. Or creating 'buildings that, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water'.

Biomimicry - or deriving specific design ideas directly from nature - is another aspect of industrial ecology. The most famous product 'invented' in this way is Velcro, which was famously derived from the Burdock's 'burrs' which its inventor found in his dog's fur after a country walk.

A more interesting example is the tunnelling machine invented by Marc Brunel - the father with the bizarre choice in names - needed for his ill-fated project to tunnel under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping between 1825 and 1843. He was impressed by the tunnelling properties of the wood-boring beatle that destroyed naval ships, the Teredo navalis:

He examined the perforations, and subsequently the animal. He found it armed with a pair of strong shelly valves which envelops its anterior integuments, and that, with its foot as a fulcrum a rotary motion was given by powerful muscles to the valves, which, acting on the wood like an auger, penetrated gradually but surely, and that as the particles were removed, they were passed through a longitudinal fissure in the foot, which formed a canal to the mouth, and so were engorged. To imitate the action of this animal became Brunel's study.

His explorations inspired the design of a machine based on this animal - a curse to the British naval fleet - which set the standard for burrowing, tunnelling machines. Brunel pere is also a fine argument for being liberal about accepting refugees. He arrived here fleeing from revolutionary France and invented machines to mass-produce pulley-blocks and soldiers' boots that were the unglamorous explanations for British victories in the Napoleonic Wars.

25 June 2008

Post-Colonial Sour Grapes

I can't believe I'm the only person who is sick to the back teeth with the wall-to-wall coverage of the non-election in Zimbabwe. Now don't get me wrong. I am as opposed as the next left-wing greenie with an over-active conscience to the beatings and oppression of the people of that country. But are they really worse than similar treatment meted out to the peoples who suffer under other dictators in other poor countries the world over? So why this particular focus on one African country of 13 million people?

There are two reasons we hear so much about Zimbabwe. The first is that it is a colony we didn't want to let go and the powers that be in this nation appear to still be resentful about that. The second is that the BBC, specifically, has been excluded from the country and can't get over the snubbing. Neither of these are good bases on which to decide the daily news agenda.

We have now reached the bizarre situation where we are asked to celebrate the fact that China - that well-known bastion of democratic rights and freedoms - has supported a UN Security Council motion condemning the lack of freedom and fairness in the Zimbabwean electoral process.

Zimbabwe is not playing by our rules and is therefore paying the price of economic sabotage. The land redistribution is not fair - the land goes to Mugabe's supporters - but it is politically right. If it were to succeed this would be noticed by landless black farmers in neighbouring South Africa.

For my part, whenever I hear another news item about Zimbabwe - it is even invading the sports news now - I wonder what news is being masked by this. What is happening in secret rooms where the powerful of the global capitalist economy make the rules we all have to live by. What are they stitching up to allow this corrupt and rickety system to go staggering on, enabling them to continue to profit at our expense?

It isn't news that the news isn't really news any more. You can now only learn about world affairs by reading between the lines. By the time news about Zimbabwe fades into the background we will know that the new financial regime we will be required to live under - without any chance to vote for it - has been established.

17 June 2008

Refuge from the Global Economy

Yesterday I was listening to Victor Jara's beautiful songs, which made the tedium of an unavoidable car journey a pleasure. For those who don't know, Victor Jara was a Chilean folk-singer and national hero during the left-wing movement that led to the election of the world's first Communist President, Salvador Allende, in 1970. (The novelist Isabel Allende is his niece.)

This was a time of hope, which was captured by Jara along with his love ballads (try this example of his most famous song, which combines both themes). But the hope was short-lived. The forces of fascism, defending global capital against a viable, democratic and just alternative, moved in for the kill. The Chilean coup - the reason I remember September 11th, for that was the day it happened in 1973 - was sudden, violent and bloody. And supported by US corporations including ITT. (See Aled's new blog for some reflections on how '9/11' is being used to enhance their global power, including by reducing our legal rights.)

Along with thousands of other 'enemies of the state', Victor Jara was arrested and violently murdered. Another of those arrested was somebody I later came across in Oxford. His name was Jaime Baez - hence his Latin American friends always called him Joan. He had been put in jail because he was the only person in his village to own a typewriter - an obvious indication that he was a dangerous revolutionary.

These thoughts come back to me now this Labour government is creating laws to allow arbitrary detention without legal justification, which was the origin of the horrors of the Latin American guerras sucias, while simultaneously making life harder for the refugees that this sort of illegality creates.

After knowing Jaime I worked at the Refugee Studies Programme in Oxford - an organisation that attempted to provide some kind of advocacy for their growing numbers. The common factor amongst the refugees I met was sadness - a deep sadness and nostalgia which nothing could shift. They played with other people's children and joined family parties with a longing which they could not hide.

The refugees' choice had not been between wealth here or poverty in Afghanistan, or Uganda, or wherever their lives still belonged. Their choice had been between life here or death there. To treat them with anything less than the utmost compassion and care is a gross violation of humanity.

16 June 2008

Low Carbon High Life

To compete with phrases such as 'the lean economy', downsizing, voluntary simplicity and so on, a friend in the Transition Stroud group here in Stroud has come up with the slogan - 'Journey to a Low Carbon High Life'. Rather than giving up things in a painful process of self-denial, our slow shift towards a sustainable life will involve finding more creative and inspiring ways to meet our real needs.

A simple life does not mean a life empty of pleasure or meaning. In the Tao Te Ching, a work of Chinese spiritual wisdom written by the sage Lao Tzu as long ago as the 6th century BCE, the philosopher describes the world of the everyday as the world of 'the ten thousand things'. The hustle and bustle removes the possibility of peace and enjoyment of nature and our friends and family.

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no on uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

Reading this sort of passage brings home to me more forcefully the fact that all the stuff that we buy and all the scurrying around we do for work or 'holidays' not only destroys the planet but removes our ability to experience relaxation and joy. The more you remove yourself from these systems and choose natural local systems instead, the more they lose their attraction. It is not a choice to deprive yourself of something - more a gradual loss of interest.

But this doesn't mean the loss of beauty - in fact quite the opposite. You feel more inclined to wear exotic colours and eat delicious local food with slow enjoyment. Why don't you start with enjoying the abundance of perfumes from flowering trees at this time of year?

13 June 2008

A Common Treasurer

I am the Green Party's economics speaker. In some of my wilder moments I imagine this might put me in some position to be the Treasurer in the first green government - if only I could live that long! More realistically I think it does give me a responsibility to think about green policies as though they were going to be implemented and to take the economic implications seriously.

If, as Greens, we believe the earth is 'a common treasury', what would a common treasurer look like? What role would we play in allocating the wealth from Nature's cornucopia. Surely we would have to conclude, as green economists do, that the wealth must be fairly shared.

All natural bounty would be viewed as 'commons'. Those who enjoy the benefit of it would pay tax and that would allow us to share the wealth with those who do not or cannot access it directly. The foremost example is land - the primary wealth of any nation and the source of most government income in a green economy.

The planet's atmosphere is also a common wealth. At present this is being greedily hoarded by the Western nations, who use it up with their industrial pollution, especially carbon dioxide. The Contraction and Convergence response to the problem of climate change takes the idea of commons seriously and assigns the right to pollute the atmosphere on fairly between the world's citizens.

How should we share this wealth? Richard Douthwaite proposal Cap-and-Share - we all receive licences to pollute which we can sell to generate our citizens' income, or give to companies we would like to support, or destroy if we want to support the planet at our own expense. Other variants of the policy suggest national governments should receive the licences and do the selling, passing the money on to citizens equally.

Perhaps most important of all is to take control of our own money. A common treasurer would, I am sure, have no objection to this. As in the 19th century local authorities would issue legal tender and invest the benefit in local infrastructure projects. How else would they have paid for the civic buildings and sewers we are still using - because since the privatisation and centralisation of money creation we haven't seen the benefit of it as citizens.

We are planning a monetary empowerment in Stroud. One thing holding us back is coming up with a good name. Others are so lucky. In Llandovery they have the Black Ox Bank, the progenitor of the black horse, set up as a drovers' bank by one Mr Lloyd. Fishguard are creating the Bluestone Bank, named after their famous rock which was so valued that it was transported to Salisbury Plain to build Stonehenge. We haven't come up with anything so resonant yet. Or even something funny. I am so envious of Transition Scilly folk, one of whom I met last weekend - their money will be a blast won't it?

10 June 2008

Gambling while others starve

Whatever explanation you've heard for why food prices are rising it probably isn't the real one. Now that the housing market is staggering to a standstill it appears that those who have been using to making easy money from speculating in a fundamental human need for shelter have now moved on to playing the same sordid game with our even more basic need for food.

Testimony recently given to the US Senate Homeland Security Committee came from a former Wall Street investor who decided to blow the whistle. Here is a brief extract:

You have asked the question 'Are Institutional Investors contributing to food and energy price inflation?' And my unequivocal answer is 'Yes'. In this testimony I will explain that Institutional Investors are one of, if not the primary, factors affecting commodities prices today. Clearly, there are many factors that contribute to price determination in the commodities markets; I am here to expose a fast-growing yet virtually unnoticed factor, and one that presents a problem that can be expediently corrected through legislative policy action.

The news of famine in Ethiopia, again, more than 20 years after Bob Geldof blasphemed to no purpose on national TV is, again, being blamed on bad governance or the weather. The usual distractions offered us to avoid the obvious conclusion that 'It's the exploitative, capitalist, post-coloniast, globalised economy - stupid!'.

And what about the row over crop-based biofuels? Competition for land is a significant and growing concern for anybody interested in green economics. But can we be sure that what is being knowingly explained in terms of the competition within free markets isn't actually a commodity price bubble being manipulated by those who will profit from it?

2 June 2008

Take me to a Free University

I was talking to a colleague recently about my disappointments at work and the struggle for academic freedom. She responded with a joke. A hijacker rushes to the cockpit of the plane he is on, points a gun at the head of the pilot and demands 'Take me to a free country'. The pilot responds 'Sorry, mate, this is an aeroplane not a spaceship'.

Years ago I made a plan - budget and all - to set up a Free University in Aberystwyth. We even had a building organised. It would have worked, creating half a dozen part-time jobs on reasonable salaries, charging the kids £3,000 a year. It makes you wonder what happens to the money in the universities we have. Of course if you work in those universities you know - most of it is wasted on prestige projects and administration.

A colleague recently made me think by telling me I wasn't a real academic because I write in an accessible way. I have, in the past, tried the obfuscatory prose that is the entry card to the best journals. I have to admit I can't do it very well but mainly something in me just won't do it. Why use five-syllable words and complex concepts when the ideas can be expressed in everyday language and thoughts? To justify those big, fat salaries presumably.

So, in my bioregional utopia, what would the higher education sector look like? I'm fairly sure universities would be organised as co-operatives. Since the exchange is between learned and learners the infrastructure need be fairly minimal - making it possible to have a much more fulfilling educational experience at a much lower cost. No value extracted for administration, management or buildings maintenance.

The institutions of learning would respond to their local environment and the leading industries where they are based - much as Glamorgan University was once the School of Mines. The homogenising of HE has followed the homogenising of the globalisation process so what is taught in management schools in Beijing is much the same was what in taught in management schools in Belfast.

In Stroud we specialise in sustainability so our Communiversity will showcase our achievements in this area, backed up by the necessary theory. An alternative is the proposal to create a Sustainability University of the Valleys. This proposal grows out of the permaculture principle of using the waste of one system to create the fertiliser for the new system. In this case the University will train the unemployed, working-class men of the Valleys communities to build a sustainable utopia. High hopes worthy of what calls itself higher education.